The 1970s mystery series Columbo remarks neatly on the procedural through its narrative structure and its detective’s investigation process. The narrative “procedure” of each episode is always the same: we see a murder committed, Columbo comes on the scene to investigate, he appears to know almost immediately who the killer is, and he spends the rest of the episode gathering evidence against him or her in a sometimes subtle, sometimes irritating game of cat and mouse. At the same time, the detective’s process – and the procedure that he follows in his investigation -- always involves his own instruction in a technological and/or cultural object.
Several murderers’ crimes or alibis are enabled by and hinge around a particular techno-gadget. For instance, in “Fade in to Murder,” a VCR provides the killer’s alibi, but it also essentially “records” a clue to his crime. The murderer, Ward Fowler, is an actor who plays a television detective called “Detective Lucerne” and who kills his blackmailing, rich producer; to do so, he drugs a friend during a live baseball game on television, sets his VCR to record the rest while he runs out to commit the crime, and then returns home to rewind the game and awaken his friend so that it seems only a few moments have passed while he was out. The layers of self-reflexivity throughout this episode are therefore both performative and technological, dependent, as they are, on two primary conceits: Columbo’s ability to “act” as a “bad” detective (and the notoriously “bad” actor William Shatner’s ability to act as one who thinks he is a better one) and Columbo’s investigation of the very liveness of television, a state that can be easily undone by analog recording technologies.
Originally airing in October 1976, “Fade in to Murder” appears in the midst of the development of the new domestic apparatus (Betamax comes on the scene in 1975, while VHS appears in 1977). As with other gadgets similarly presented and investigated in the series, here we get a brief material history of this emerging technology: a visible evidence of emerging technological tools, an instructional guide for their use, and an acknowledgment of their monetary cost. As this particular machine records a live sporting event, the series records a historical and cultural moment in which this machine emerges. The VCR in particular, moreover, allows for a self-reflexive admission of the series’ own modus operandi: its dual investigation of cultural objects and the instruction of the detective himself in their operations.